Thursday, September 24, 2009

Who Is Your Master?

To whom do you belong? I mean literally. Who physically owns you? Don’t give me any claptrap about your boss owning you. You continue at your current employment by your own choice (as long as your boss lets you). The fact that you must earn a living (just like the vast majority of people) does not mean that anyone actually owns you.

You may have a valid point if you answered that your spouse owns you. In most states your spouse has legal claim on certain of your property and performances. But even this relationship could be terminated if you desired. It might be messy, but it can be done legally.

Did you answer that you belong to ‘the collective’ or to the government? The American Revolution challenged this notion. After much debate in 1776, Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, which includes this revolutionary founding doctrine:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
It is true that many of the men that signed that document did not think that the term “all men” included all men, women, and children of all economic, social, and ethnic classes. Nearly two centuries of struggles, including bloodshed was required to arrive at that interpretation. Although some among us have still not come to such an understanding, something close to it is currently the broadest accepted interpretation.

One line of thinking is that all rights are necessarily derived from the government and that the governed thus owe the government pretty much whatever the government requires. (The word ‘government’ in that sentence is interchangeable with the word ‘society’ and any of its equivalents.) The CATO Institute’s Tom Palmer poked holes in this theory in this article five years ago by employing a medical corollary.
“If a doctor were to save my life, then, since the doctor would be responsible for my existence, and therefore for all of the liberty and wealth that I might enjoy or create henceforth, the doctor would have the right to decide what should happen with that liberty and that wealth, since without the doctor neither I, nor the liberty, nor the wealth would exist.”
Besides, as Palmer notes, the argument that people only have what they have due to the government is an absurd reduction that ignores all other inputs. It simplistically disregards the marginal revolution in economics. Palmer calls such ignorance “remarkably primitive.”
“It is now recognized that we make choices across a great many margins, and that value is not created by a single necessary factor. If that were not so, we could say that farmers produce all value, since without food none of the rest of us would produce anything else; likewise, for other groups and factors of production.”
So the government is only one of the many inputs to our personal liberty and wealth. It is not the only or even the most important factor. Outside of government, our relationships with all of these other inputs are based on willing interactions rooted in an acceptance of several property.

Government works somewhat differently. Some interactions are based on willingness. For example, you choose whether or not to access a national park. If you choose to do so, you pay a fee. You willingly exchange your resources for an opportunity to enjoy a public resource. Nobody forces you to visit a national park.

Many other interactions with government, however, are rooted in coercion. A good friend that is a top notch high school teacher recently quipped that he wanted security so he chose a profession where the public was forced to pay his salary under threat of imprisonment. We laughed, but there was truth in his words.

Most of us want enough government to ensure a civil society. Of course, exactly how much government that means and what a civil society means are open questions. Our Founders issued any number of warnings about allowing government to grow to the point that it usurped liberty.

We seem to have profound disagreements in this nation as to the definitions of liberty and slavery. Many have an expansive view of government’s role in securing a certain interpretation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This view is often so broad as to equate liberty with wealth. After all, how can one be free if one has not enough to live decently?

As people buy this line, it enables government to expand. The ruling class (often in the name of the majority or “what’s good for the people”) is empowered to implement its interpretations of life, liberty, and happiness by force of law. Liberty becomes providing for all. Such an implementation is indistinguishable from slavery. It calls to mind the doublespeak phrase from Orwell’s novel 1984, “Freedom is slavery.”

Research has found that (at least some) of Washington’s slaves at his Mount Vernon estate lived quite well. Some were certainly economically far better off than the free rabble that inhabited Spartan dwellings in the countryside. But it is impossible to argue that these slaves enjoyed more liberty than the impoverished freemen that were their contemporaries.

Liberty and substance are not equivalents. Liberty is freedom from external coercion. It does not come from a government program, although, the government should protect and enable it. It does not come from an employer, although, institutions such as this can do much to further the cause of freedom.

The proper function of government certainly must be funded. And most Americans are willing to pay their “fair share” of the burden. Unfortunately, the average American’s concept of their fair share of the current expansive government is far smaller than their proportionate share of its expenditures. Hence, the deficit.

But do not try to tell me that an expansive government is morally proper. The greater the scope of government, the greater the coercion it exercises in the lives of individuals. This is particularly true as government and big business become deeply intertwined, implementing government coercion in the disguise of free enterprise.

Patrick Henry is most famous today for crying out, “Give me Liberty or give me Death!” Do we even know what liberty means anymore?

4 comments:

David said...

Do we even know what liberty means anymore?

As a society? No. (Some individuals do, but society as a whole has forgotten.) That is why our family and community structures are dying.

Patrick Henry made his statement as a demand, in some ways it is really a statement of fact - without understanding and claiming liberty the only alternative left to receive is death.

Victory In Progress said...

This is a fantastic post. I think it's one of the most succinct break downs of our differing views of government that I've ever read. Thanks.

Charles D said...

Yes we are all individuals responsible for our own behavior. But most of us do not remain isolated. We meet someone and marry, and if we willingly give up some of our independence because we would prefer to live with someone else rather than live alone. We have children, usually these days because we choose to do so and we certainly give up a lot of our independence and accept a great deal of responsibility toward those children even though the benefits to us are not material.

Many of us join churches or other community organizations where we give up some of our time and money in order to have a community of like-minded people with whom to interact.

Our forefathers did something similar. They realized they could not achieve what they wished for themselves and their posterity by acting as individuals with no commitment to one another. Their first attempt at a confederation demonstrated that without a strong federal government, it would not be possible to prosper and secure the blessing of liberty for themselves and their posterity.

A strong federal government was the solution, not the problem. Without that government to keep the peace, protect them from invaders, protect their industry with tariffs, and pay for the infrastructure needed to grow their businesses, the nation we know and love would not exist.

Government, ideally, is one of a number of associations and commitments people make that is designed to help them achieve a better life. We have strayed far from that ideal, but government itself is not the culprit. The culprit is the lack of democracy. The problem is that we no longer control our government, it is no longer representative of our desires nor does it meet our needs.

It has devolved into a wholly-owned subsidiary of the largest financial and corporate institutions devoted to maximizing their profits, often at the expense of the majority. Time and time again we find ourselves in a situation where the government acts in direct contradiction to the popular will. The health care debacle is one of these. Polls taken before the media conflagration of the last several months showed an overwhelming majority of the American people favored a single-payer system guaranteeing universal care. But our government, allegedly dominated now by "liberals", did not even consider that idea and has refused to endorse anything even mildly resembling it. Why? Because the moneyed interests stand to lose if the people get what they want. This is not the government our Founders intended.

Reach Upward said...

Our Founders did discover that a weak central government was inadequate to meet the demands imposed by competing external interests. But their combined wisdom produced a system that recognized that only certain factors should be centrally controlled, while others were to be reserved to more local jurisdictions.

The battle over what was to be controlled centrally and locally remained a hotly debated issue that was overwhelmingly answered by the Civil War, which determined that the matter of individual bondage was too great an issue to be determined below the federal level.

Subsequent to this, there has been a continual push by various groups to bring increasing matters under the purview of the federal government. They all have their list of matters that should be excluded from federal control. There is a variety of disagreements between these groups various lists.

There seems to be little comprehension that the Civil War was intended to be an exceptional and extraordinary answer to a singular issue. If federal control was good for the abolition of slavery, seems to be the thinking, it is good for pretty much everything else --- except those matters that I personally think the government ought to stay out of.

Regardless of whether these types of ideas come from the right or the left (or some other direction), the fact is that they presume that we always have a moral right to force our neighbors to behave in any way we want as long as we get most of our neighbors to vote along with us. It presumes that we always have a moral right to own as much of our neighbors' lives as we wish. Might makes right.

This is no more right than the might-makes-right of the corporate control of government.